Bend Police Chief Jim Porter is concerned about how downtown, one of the most popular spots in the city, will be policed during the summer — the department’s busiest time of year and the season when vacations reduce the number of available officers.
The downtown area and Drake Park are crawling with picnickers, concertgoers and joggers come summertime. It’s also a popular place for the homeless to gather.
“We have significant staffing challenges to meet those needs at the same levels we’ve had in the past,” Porter said Monday.
The Bend Park & Recreation District decided last year to stop paying for a certified police officer to patrol the city’s parks. Instead, the district is using the same funds to pay for private patrol services and a beefed-up program to enforce park rules and regulations, according to district Executive Director Don Horton.
While Horton says the change better suits the needs of the park district, the police chief says it creates a challenge for his department, which has been working to “improve the livability of the downtown area,” including the area between Drake Park and downtown, according to a March 24 memo to Bend City Manager Eric King.
For about five years, the Bend Park & Recreation District has set aside funds to pay for a police officer to patrol the city’s parks for 40 hours a week, Horton said.
Porter noted the department expected it could add more police downtown as it trains new officers, which he hopes will occur by the end of July. He also said in the memo that the department is considering using overtime to pay for “focused patrols in the downtown area.”
Horton said the park district has decided to use Bend Patrol Services for public safety services in the park because “90 percent” of issues in the parks — including dogs not on leashes — aren’t crimes, but quality-of-life issues.
Police will still be called when an incident requires an arrest or other action that calls for a police officer, Horton said.
“Where we do call in the police department is for drug activity … or if there’s any kind of disturbance where it would require a police officer to come and take care of it,” Horton said. “That was the case when a police officer was assigned (to the parks).”
Horton said using the private security team provides more comprehensive security coverage of the parks.
Porter noted in the memo that the council “often receives inquiries” on so-called livability issues downtown. Earlier this year, the police department surveyed downtown business owners about their concerns. The list of grievances is long and ranges from loitering and panhandling to indecent exposure and graffiti, the memo to King shows.
The staffing adjustment comes at a time when the police department continues to evaluate its presence and response to incidents downtown. In recent years, the department has increased its presence downtown by ramping up foot patrols and seeking to expand the city’s exclusion zone.
Emergency calls for service in the downtown area increased slightly between 2014 and 2015, while in the same period, nonemergency calls decreased from 1,915 to 1,860, according to the memo.
The approach police take now is referred to as problem-oriented policing, a strategy that emphasizes preventive police work and cooperation with community members to identify solutions to apparent issues.
The main idea behind these strategies appears to be making the downtown area less inviting for people who engage in activity considered to be criminal or violations of city ordinances.
For example, in the memo Porter noted some early solutions to loitering could possibly include cutting off electricity to outlets in the Mirror Pond plaza area and unspecified “physical enhancements” to the breezeway between Wall Street and the plaza. But he also noted that a bathroom in the downtown parking garage could reduce public urination.
On Monday, he said that similar measures have been taken in other cities that have successfully used a problem-oriented policing approach.
The city’s exclusion zone, which was expanded via ordinance last year, authorizes Bend police to ban people from re-entering downtown after committing one of a range of violations there.
Some city councilors and members of the public expressed concerns that the ordinance would make criminals out of, or unfairly target, the homeless population.
The police department’s liaison to downtown merchants, Sgt. Dan Ritchie, also scheduled meetings with business owners downtown to educate them on what activities are “constitutionally protected,” according to the memo.
Porter said Monday the department is a voting member of the Homeless Leadership Coalition, a wide-ranging group of advocates and agencies working to address homelessness. He said the department also seeks input from the Family Kitchen and the Deschutes Public Library and works with them to craft an appropriate law enforcement response.